While visiting your favourite shopping mall, you walk past a coffee shop where you overhear the shop manager having a heated argument with a customer. You are in a hurry to get to the grocery store to pick up some food items, so you don’t care to stop at the coffee shop to figure out the reason for the heated exchange. The next day, you hit the mall again but this time you are in the mood for a relaxing cup of coffee. You approach the same coffee shop where you had witnessed the argument the previous day, and you notice that the same manager is on duty. Across the lobby, there is another coffee shop. Would you stop at the first coffee shop or choose to walk an extra 20 yards to go to the other coffee shop?
Many people in that situation would walk to the other coffee shop even if it meant a little extra walking. Why would people avoid going to the coffee shop with the “cranky manager”? What makes them think that manager is indeed cranky? It is entirely possible that the situation he faced yesterday entirely warranted his behaviour, but somehow we tend to assign responsibility to actors than to situations. Generally speaking, two types of forces are at work behind any person’s behaviour: the person’s unique and enduring personality and the specifics of the situation in which the behaviour occurs. We tend to draw inferences about a person’s personality based on their observed actions, even when such actions can be convincingly attributable to situational circumstances. In other words, we readily see correspondence between a person’s actions and personality, resulting in a bias known as correspondence bias.
In everyday life, all we get to see are people’s actions. We don’t get to observe their motivation or reasoning. As such, we have no choice but to make assumptions about the reasons for their actions. The correspondence bias comes into play when we overemphasize the role of dispositional forces at the expense of situational factors that might have triggered a particular action. In a classic experiment, subjects were asked to listen to pro-abortion and anti-abortion speeches. They were explicitly told that the speakers were randomly assigned to speak in favour of or against abortion (and hence the views they expressed in their speeches were not necessarily theirs). Still, subjects believed that speakers were innately more in favour of the position on which they spoke.
Why do we tend to make unwarranted dispositional inferences? Researchers have identified several possible reasons. First, the person making the inference may be unaware of the situation of the actor. You may think that the coffee shop manager was rude and argumentative but you were not privy to the cause of the conflict. Second, the awareness of an actor’s situation may also paradoxically create correspondence bias. Several actions have an element of ambiguity that allows for different interpretations by different observers. In another experiment, researchers showed a silent video of a young female being interviewed. One group was told that it was a “sex interview” and another group that it was a “politics interview”. The group that was told it was a sex interview reported that the woman exhibited more anxiety. In other words, subjects were aware of her situational factor and expected to see more anxiety, so that’s what they saw. Finally, the person making the unwarranted inference could have unrealistic expectations. You may expect the store manager to never lose his cool, irrespective of the aggravation. But it is important to realize that a single exception to the manager’s generally polite demeanour may not justify a global inference about his personality.
How can managers use correspondence bias to their advantage? If you do not want people to think that you have a particular disposition, avoid being seen in situations that require you to behave in a manner that allows for such an inference. For example, if you don’t want your staff to think that you are cold, avoid firing an employee in a public manner. By the same token, do create situations where your actions will allow for favourable dispositional inferences.
When making inferences about others, stop and think whether your judgement is warranted based on all the information available. The “gut feel” you have about a person’s competence or trustworthiness may simply be an outcome of the correspondence bias.
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Praveen Aggarwal is an associate professor of marketing at the Labovitz School of Business and Economics at the University of Minnesota Duluth and Rajiv Vaidyanathan is a professor of marketing and director of MBA programmes at the University of Minnesota Duluth.